war on the rocks

Preparing for the Worst-Case Scenario: Building Coalitions Left of Boom

March 16, 2018

The United States has led multiple coalitions for the low intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 attacks, yet the U.S. and allied militaries are unprepared for the possibility of multiple conflicts involving a combination of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

While irregular wars have been the main focus of the U.S. military since 2001, the 2018 National Defense Strategy refocuses the Defense Department on inter-state and great power competition. To meet that challenge, the document highlights the need to “strengthen and evolve our alliances and partnerships into an extended network capable of deterring or decisively acting to meet the shared challenges of our time” [emphasis mine].

If the United States is to create effective coalitions to deal with multiple regional conflicts — a threat that could outpace the capabilities of today’s military — decision-makers must first examine the potential for those conflicts. Further, the United States will have to adapt to create alliances that can defeat, or at least delay, adversaries in the European, Pacific, and Central theaters.

The U.S. military has the ability to prevail in a conventional, limited conflict against any one of the opponents previously listed. As such, it is unlikely that any one of them would desire a unilateral open conflict with the United States. However, such deterrence is only possible as long as the United States maintains an adequate reserve of uncommitted military power that it could bring to bear against each of these state actors.

The key dilemma is that America’s adversaries have increased their military capability and the U.S. military has not kept pace with the growing security threats collectively posed by Russian, Chinese, North Korean, and Iranian military forces. As the National Defense Strategy points out, “the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain … Today, every domain is contested ….” Therefore, with today’s force, one must assume that if the United States commits against a state actor, it will immediately lose the deterrent effect against the others. While none of these four countries wants to be the first to test this theory, it is possible for a conflict to start through miscalculation or inadvertent escalation. Consequently, it is prudent to assume that if a conflict begins, one or more of the other adversaries would seek to advance some of their long-standing regional goals, believing U.S. military power to be committed elsewhere. This is what the National Defense Strategy refers to as “opportunistic aggression.” At a minimum, it would be wise for the United States to prepare for this worst-case scenario — a cascading series of simultaneous conflicts that begin shortly after one another.

While this scenario would create a gap between global requirements and available U.S. forces, these regional adversaries would not have the same difficulty. Rather, adversaries would have a sole limited focus, and enjoy shorter lines of communication within their region. Thus, they would be able to bring mass to the conflicts, potentially reversing, region-by-region, the military superiority the United States currently enjoys.

For all of the experience it has in multiple low-grade conflicts, the U.S. military has limited experience in its recent past with the kind of multi-theater, state-on-state conflicts that this scenario imagines. World War II was a long time ago and the United States then enjoyed advantages upon which it cannot currently count. First, the speed of warfare has increased significantly since the Second World War. The U.S. was able to overcome initial Axis gains after a national mobilization. Now, however, regional adversaries may be able to achieve their limited regional goals faster than the U.S. could raise additional required forces. Second, U.S. allies delayed Axis forces in the time it took for the U.S. to generate additional forces. In a future conflict, the U.S. may again have to count on allies like these to delay enemy forces until sufficient combat power is available after victory in another theater, or is created as part of a national mobilization.

Although most recent U.S. military operations have been examples of coalition warfare, these campaigns often over relied on a few select allies and did not fully test the capabilities of others. The United States also failed to codify sufficient lessons learned to prepare it to lead coalitions in major theater conflicts against adversaries of peer capability. Therefore, the multinational partnerships upon which the United States will have to rely in state on state conventional conflicts are not currently ready. There are, however, steps the United States can take to correct this problem.

Prioritizing for Multiple Conflicts

Currently, each U.S. geographic combatant command maintains plans for combat operations against regional adversaries. These plans detail how many forces are required and how those forces would flow into theater. The problem is, many of these plans assume their major contingency will be the only one the U.S. military has to grapple with at any given time. So, if a resource intensive conflict began, this would impact plans in other combatant commands, specifically in terms of forces and resources available for operations elsewhere.

To prepare for multiple conflicts, the Defense Department should better coordinate the various combatant commands’ plans to account for this. Commands should refine their economy of force plans to conduct major theater conflicts as delaying actions and rely primarily on partners from each region to multiply their combat power. In some cases, such Korea, allies are full partners in the planning and rehearsals. In other theaters, the regional partners need to be brought into this planning effort, making clear to them what would be expected of them, with what speed, and what preparations are required now — prior to hostilities.

Although commands integrate some allies into their planning, they are often the same key allies. Many of these countries will find themselves facing similar force generation problems in the event of multiple conflicts. For example, British units fighting alongside the United States in Europe can’t also fight alongside the United States in the Pacific. Therefore, U.S. leaders need to have some frank conversations with America’s more capable allies to determine where and how they would prioritize forces in the event of several major conflicts, taking into account that allies will prioritize responses differently based on their own national interests.

Issues with Interoperability and Communications

Potential allies and the United States should also address the range of difficulties posed by their equipment and its interoperability. Advances in computing and communications have exponentially increased the distance, speed, amount, and detail of information that can be passed between headquarters. But this massive amount of data has also become less widely available as security requirements have forced sensitive information onto compartmented, U.S.-run networks and out of the hands, at least without difficulty, of non-Five Eyes allies. Therefore, in many cases, the issue of information sharing is not actually a classification one, but rather a technical one. The Pentagon needs to seek technical solutions to develop more inclusive communications networks that facilitate information sharing and command and control with partners who do not have SIPRnet access. In some cases, such as with NATO, standing alliance organizations have developed systems to address these challenges. However, the challenge remains in theaters without such permanent organizations.

Enabling Regional Militaries

The United States should develop mechanisms to “plug into” and support regional allies. This can help mitigate some of the communications issues addressed above. For example, during Operation Inherent Resolve, American forces synchronized the maneuver of Iraqi Security Forces with the artillery fire and close air support of a U.S.-led coalition, despite no shared secure network between American and Iraqi forces.

By placing advisors in the headquarters of Iraqi Army and Counter Terrorism Service units, U.S. forces were able to overcome this technical difficulty by using face-to-face advising as a means to establish an information sharing and coordinating backbone across Iraqi Forces. This same mechanism for coordination could and should be used to synchronize the efforts of regional partners in the event that network-based communication is either infeasible or not fully developed when hostilities begin. Within the U.S. Army, Security Force Assistance Brigades are currently being established. Once the development of these brigades is complete, they should be integrated into the geographic combatant command’s “economy of force” plans and associated force flows. Likewise, the other services should develop similar capabilities to coordinate with partner air and maritime forces.

While effective, this model is resource intensive. U.S. or western intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), fires, and aviation assets were required in numbers disproportionate to the number of U.S. or allied forces on ground in order to support Iraqi forces. Most of these enablers only exist in quantities based on requirements for current U.S. formations. However, just as manpower must be aligned to prepare for supporting partners, the Defense Department needs to acquire these capabilities in greater numbers, beyond those required for U.S. formations, to be ready for support to regional coalitions.

More Effective Security Assistance

The United States also needs to rethink how it approaches security assistance and security cooperation. Some of these high demand requirements discussed above, as well as more traditional capabilities, can be provided to regional allies through foreign military sales and foreign military financing. However, these programs are often seen as rewards to the countries receiving them and a way to exert influence upon those countries. There is little evidence that this approach pays off. The United States would be better served to use assistance to build required capabilities among partners who will fight alongside the U.S. military while developing a network of interoperable systems in preparation for potential conflicts. In coordination with developed contingency plans, sales should be tailored to meet the specific gaps that exist between current partner capability and the requirements for these partners in future conflicts.

Similarly, multinational exercises, often vaguely focused on interoperability, should be specifically tailored to train and test tasks that would be required of partners in the event of war. These scenarios should not only assess plans against likely adversaries, but also reflect the technical advances of those adversaries, such as exercising ballistic missile defense and countering unmanned systems.

Keeping the Blades Sharp

The United States cannot waste opportunities to test its integration with coalition partners in ongoing operations. The U.S. military has found ways for allied partners to contribute in a substantive way in Iraq and Syria, but these missions have rarely tested the limits of systems that would be needed for a future major conflict. Allied militaries — beyond the Five Eyes partners with access to U.S. networks — are rarely used in a combat advisor role in direct contact with the enemy. Instead, they are primarily relegated to training Iraqi Security Forces on fixed locations. This has far less to do with capability or willingness of these forces, and far more to do with the challenges of synchronizing maneuver forces on networks other than U.S.-run classified networks. Instead of finding solutions to these problems, the default solution is often utilizing more forces from countries with access to U.S. systems. Many coalition countries have committed to these operations, in part, as an allied defense staffer said to me, “to keep the blades sharp.” In other words, these countries rightly recognize that the fight against the Islamic State provides an opportunity to test concepts, equipment, and doctrine against a less capable enemy than those they would face in a larger regional war at home. Many allies recognize this benefit, but the United States has not taken full advantage of the situation.

This approach makes it incumbent on leadership above the operational level to find ways to best exploit these opportunities — the laboratories of low grade war — to ensure preparation for wars that will be less forgiving. If forcing and testing coalition integration proves infeasible due to mission requirements and unacceptable risk, the specific reasons for this must be identified, addressed in subsequent security cooperation efforts, and overcome in preparation for future conflicts.

These recommendations are just some steps that the United States can take to prepare its regional partners to conduct conventional coalition warfare. In the event of a worst-case scenario — in which the United States finds itself fighting multiple state actor rivals — the readiness of these coalitions may prove critical.


Lt. Col. Mike Nelson is an Army Special Forces officer and veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and Inherent Resolve. The views expressed here do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or U.S. Central Command.

Image: U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Tarr